Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Thoughts on Championship Sunday and BELIEVE in the New York Rangers.

Green Bay 21, Chicago 14.

- STOP!!! Stop hating on Jay Cutler!

I couldn't believe the amount of NFL players outraged over Jay Cutler not returning to the NFC title game after ripping apart his MCL. All of this anti-Cutler backlash is not about a football player not playing an enormous game hurt. It is an opportunity for those that dislike Cutler to jump all over him. Let me ask a question to these players: did you see the way Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey's ankle was injured in the AFC title game? Where's the backlash over him not playing on one leg. Also, Hines Ward, one the toughest, most hard-nosed players in the NFL injured his knee in the '09 title game and stood on the sideline the remainder of the game. Where was the backlash then? I rest my case.

-Aaron Rodgers' tackle on Brian Urlacher saved the game for the Packers.

By far the most important play of the game. If Urlacher goes all the way, it's very possible the Bears win that game. Other than the first drive of the game, Rodgers did nothing the rest of the game offensively.

-If that score had happened, Caleb Haney (who?) would have won the NFC title for Chicago.

Give the kid props. He overcame some early jitters to make some key plays in the fourth quarter, including two TD passes, to keep the game interesting. He may have earned a 2nd-string job somewhere next year.

-The Steelers should take notice on how the Bears' D flustered Aaron Rodgers.

In the Week 17 game at Lambeau and the NFC title game, Rodgers was clearly not at his best. The Steelers shoulds study game tape of both games to see how the Bears' D confused him all day long.

Pittsburgh 24, NY Jets 19.

-The Steelers are lucky they didn't complete one of the worst choke jobs in playoff history.

If not for a couple of key Ben Roethlisberger passes, and a major goal line stand in the 4th quarter, chances are we may be seeing the Jets in Dallas, and not Pittsburgh. The Steelers did NOT bring their A-game in the 2nd half. It was almost as if they were counting down the minutes instead of playing football. If they want to beat Green Bay on Feb. 6 in Dallas, they must play a FULL 60 minutes, not 30-35.

-On 4th and goal during that goal line stand, why are the Jets running an old, beat up LaDainian Tomlinson instead of the bigger and more athletic Shonn Greene or even a quarterback sneak from Mark Sanchez? I personally did not have a problem with the passes on 2nd and 3rd down; they just simply weren't executed.

-Give Mark Sanchez credit for not letting his team quit after getting down 24-3. If the second half of this game and the Patriot game are any indication, the Jet franchise is in good hands with Sanchez for the next decade. He will be better next year.

-Big Ben does not need the gaudy stats as long as he makes the big plays and show the heart of a lion.

He threw two interceptions (and should have thrown at least 4 or 5) and no TD passes. But he made many key 3rd down rushes and completed two key passes to Heath Miller and Antonio Brown on 3rd down to ice the game for the Steelers in the final minutes. He may not be glamorous, but Roethlisberger simply knows how to win.

****Full Super Bowl Preview next week!!!****

Believe in the 2010-11 New York Rangers.

I don't want to jinx anything, but this New York Rangers team is capable of something special this year. Disclaimer: I am NOT guaranteeing a Stanley Cup or even a finals apperance, but don't be surprised if either happen. Here's why:

1. This team's blue-collar work ethic is putting the league on it's toes. Their games may not always be pretty, but they will play 60 hard minutes night in and night out, and every single man in the lineup contributes, whether on the score sheet or on the intangible side. You want the greatest example? The team's leading goal scorer is Brian Boyle, a career 4th liner, with 18. He hadn't scored more than 10 in a season ever before.

2. They have proved they can beat the elite. A 1-0 grindfest against Vancouver. A 7-0 home win against Ovechkin and the Capitals, plus a 2-1 shootout win in D.C. last night. Two wins against Pittsburgh on the road, with Sidney Crosby in the lineup both times. They are capable of beating anyone at any time.

3. Martin Biron has been excellent as Henrik Lundqvist's backup. Ranger fans no longer have to cringe when King Henrik doesn't play. Biron has played like a #1 on most nights that he gives Hank a rest. This will benefit him greatly come playoff time.

4. No Ranger fan wants to admit it, but give Glen Sather credit for stocking a very, very deep farm system. This is something this franchise has never had. Interchangeable parts coming to and from Hartford to fill in for injured veterans. More than half the lineup is homegrown, and more potential stars are waiting in the wings. Lundqvist, Marc Staal, Brandon Dubinsky, and Ryan Callahan make up a core of hard-working, blue collar players that will guide the Blueshirts through the next decade. Others include Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Matt Gilroy, and Artem Anisimov. This season alone, the majority of the Rangers' top prospects have tasted NHL Life: Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello, Ryan McDonagh, and Evgeny Grachev. Stepan and Zuccarello are now major components of this unit. More, such as Chris Kreider, are on the way soon. Also, give Sather credit for ridding the Rangers of some horrible contracts, such as Scott Gomez, Wade Redden, and now Michal Roszival. The only bad one remaining is Chris Drury.

5. That all being said, they need more consistent play from their best player, Marian Gaborik. A 4-goal game to break out of a slump is nice, but a goal per game for Gabby will catapult this team to the next level. Come playoff time, him and Lundqvist will have to be on their A game.

6. If this team is fully healthy come playoff time, they will be scary. Look at all their injured players. Ryan Callahan has missed a month and a half. Brandon Dubinsky is likely out until Mid-February. Vinny Prospal hasn't played a game yet. Marian Gaborik missed a month. Chris Drury nearly missed two. Erik Christensen has been out a long time. Ruslan Fedotenko is hurt. Alex Frolov is out for the season. Dan Girardi and Brandon Prust are banged up. Despite all that, the Rangers are on the verge of 30 wins before the All-Star break. They didn't reach their 30th win of last season until March 12. And they finished one point out of a playoff spot. Believe, Ranger fans. Believe. It's going to be a fun second half and playoff run.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Divisional Round Recap and Championship Sunday Preview

Pittsburgh 31, Baltimore 24.

Was this a choke job by the Ravens or simply the Steelers outplaying them? The answer is, a little bit of both. Joe Flacco played the second half of Saturday's game as if he hadn't played a game of football in his life. Three turnovers, including one by Ray Rice that changed the course of the game. Plus a holding penalty that negated a punt return for a touchdown. Easy to suggest choke, right? Well, give the Steelers more credit than that. The hallmark of the Mike Tomlin era is that this team NEVER panics. And they didn't. They stuck to their game plan in the second half despite all the first half physical and mental mistakes, and took advantage of every opportunity their opponents gave them. That is the mark of a championship-calibur team. You want another example? Big Ben's 58-yard pass to rookie reciever Antonio Brown on 3rd and 18 with less than two minutes to go, in their own territory, is one of the gutsiest calls in playoff history. THAT is how you win in January.

Green Bay 45, Atlanta 21.

Did the Falcons get the number of that truck that flattened them like a pancake Saturday night? It's ARGB12. Aaron Rodgers' postseason career, after only three starts, is beginning to mirror those of Joe Montana and Tom Brady. His counterpart, Matt Ryan, has a LOT of work to do to reach that level, after two playoff losses in three seasons. His inexplicable throw to Tramon Williams at the end of the first half to essentially put a dagger in the Dirty Birds defies logic. The Packers look like a Super Bowl winner, don't they? Everything is going their way right now. And get ready for this one, Packer Nation: your current quarterback is BETTER, yes, BETTER than Mr. Favre in his prime.

Chicago 35, Seattle 24.

All you can say about this one is that Seattle's magic simply ran out. Jay Cutler did not make any fatal mistakes during his first playoff game, but he will have to be nearly flawless next week against the Packers for Da Bearsss to have a chance to make it to Dallas. As I said last week, Seattle needed to play another near perfect game like the one they had against the Saints in the first round, and after getting down 7-0 very quickly, you could sense it was over for them.

NY Jets 28, New England 21.

On behalf of all Patriot haters worldwide, I'd just like to say THANK YOU to the Jets for knocking off football's Evil Empire. The Jets didn't just back up all their smack talk to the Pats Sunday night, but they recieved bragging rights for at least the next calendar year, no matter what happens the remainded of the postseason or next regular season! This was, without a doubt, the Jets' greatest victory since Super Bowl III (for now), and for the first time, we can actually question the greatness of Brady and Belichick! Consider this, folks. The Pats have NOT won a playoff game since the 2008 AFC title game against the Chargers. Three calendar years. They still have not recovered from the Super Bowl loss to the Giants. And with Brady nearing his mid-30s, and the remaining cornerstone from their old dynasty gone, it's time to ask yourself: can B&B win one more Super Bowl? I doubt it! This year was their best chance, and they played their worst game of the season against their archrival.

Conference Championship Picks (2-2 last week; won with PIT and GB, lost with SEA and NE; 25-27 overall)

Green Bay 34, Chicago 17. (GB -3 1/2)
Aaron Rodgers and Tramon Williams are playing the best football of their lives right now. The Packers are getting contributions from so many second-string players that they should name a string-cheese after guys like James Starks. On a historic run like this, you can't have a doubt in your mind that the Pack will go into Soldier Field against their oldest rival and take care of business on the road to Dallas. How can the Bears win this one? Generate a pass rush and attempt to fluster Rodgers. If somehow they can accomplish that, wonderful. But the other key will be, as mentioned before, if mistake-prone Jay Cutler can throw a flawless game. If these things happen, Chicago has a fighter's chance. But at the end, Green Bay is simply better, top to bottom.

Pittsburgh 17, NY Jets 13. (PIT -3 1/2)
This game is a toss-up. Both teams feature excellent defenses. One (Steelers) can stop the run better than anyone, and another (Jets) can stop the pass better than anyone. Also, the biggest difference between this game and the 22-17 Week 15 Jet win at Heinz Field: the best defensive player in the sport, Troy Polamalu, is playing for Pittsburgh. Heath Miller, their All-Pro tight end, will be playing as well. Perhaps their heart and soul on the D-line, Aaron Smith, may return from torn triceps. So what will this game come down to? The quarterbacks. Ben Roethlisberger has two Super Bowl rings to his credit already, and is arguably the best big-game quarterback in the game today. Mark Sanchez is one win away from the most road playoff wins by a quarterback in history. These players will have to make one huge play in order for their teams to have a chance. The special teams, especially if Brad Smith can't go for the Jets, will be an X-factor as well. This is going to be an exciting game.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

First Round Recap and Divisional Round Preview

Seattle 41, New Orleans 36.
We just witnessed one of the great upsets in NFL playoff history, but that fact has been forgotten. Why? Everyone is still talking about Marshawn Lynch's now legendary 67-yard TD run that effectively won the game for the Hawks. In fact, the run was so epic that it made the Earth shake. Literally. And if you did not jump up and down in euphoria after that stiff arm of Tracy Porter, you are NOT, repeat, NOT a true football fan. That is included with eight, EIGHT broken tackles. It will be on highlight reels for years to come.

NY Jets 17, Indianapolis 16.
No surprise here, honestly. The Colts simply had to deal with too many injuries this year, and the Jets are simply the better team. Mark Sanchez grew up as an NFL quarterback in this game, although he did recieve a little help on the Jets' final drive from the Colts' Jim Caldwell, who will be on the hot seat next season. One immortal quarterback down for Rex Ryan, another one on deck next week.

Baltimore 30, Kansas City 7.
Again, no real surprise in terms of the victor here, but it's surprising how Kansas City unraveled so quickly. Rumors indicate that Head Coach Todd Haley stripped now-former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis of his play-calling duties. The truth is, the entire team, players and coaches, forgot how to play the game Sunday. That all being said, this Chiefs team took a huge step forward this season, and is far ahead of schedule in terms of reaching their ultimate goal: a Patriots-esque dynasty. As for the Ravens, this is their billionth postseason road win in the last couple of years, and it especially felt good for them to do it for the troubled Ed Reed.

Green Bay 21, Philadelphia 16.
It's easy to blame David Akers for this loss, missing two makable field goals that turned out to be the difference in the score. But in all honesty, the entire Eagles team fell apart after the Miracle in the New Meadowlands, losing their last three games. Michael Vick was no longer his electric self, the running game was non-existent, and the defense couldn't make the big stop when necessary. Now, my original NFC favorite is out, and a new one is in: the Green Bay Packers. This team is deep enough and talented enough despite a laundry list of injuries to make it to Dallas. If they beat Atlanta next week, bet on them heading there.

Divisional Round Picks (2-2 last week; won with NYJ and BAL, lost with NO and PHI; 23-25 overall)

Pittsburgh 20, Baltimore 16. (PIT -3)
The best rivalry in the NFL, hands down. No arguments. When these two get together, you will see the most physical, bruising football possible, and this is the way the game is meant to be played. Every single game between these two is a thriller, and this one should be no exception. Both meetings in the regular season were decided by three points, both road wins. Does this bode well for the Ravens? Probably. But if Ed Reed's family problems prevent him from playing, a bigger edge goes to the rested, presumably healthy Steelers. For now, based on the big play abilities of Big Ben and Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh gets a slight edge.

Green Bay 27, Atlanta 21. (GB +2)
As stated before, the Packers are my new NFC favorite, and they will show why against Atlanta. If the physical defense of Green Bay can stop Atlanta's running game and put the game in Matty Ice's hands, they have an excellent chance of winning. The key here will be if Ryan can make one big play through the air to either Roddy White or Tony Gonzalez. If so, it will give the Atlanta offense confidence it can compete with Aaron Rodgers in a potential shootout. Atlanta's time will come in the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era, but right now the Pack seem to be on a magic carpet ride.

Chicago 23, Seattle 17. (SEA +10)
A 7-9 team can't possibly make a conference championship game, can it? Well, if you watched the Seahawks last week, they looked like a completely different team than the one that played in the regular season, beating the defending champs. If they can beat New Orleans, they should have the confidence to beat anybody. But this one will not be easy. If a transformed Jay Cutler can shred apart the Seattle defense early, which may be simple for him, is it fair to expect Matt Hasselbeck to duplicate by far the best performance of his career again in this one? This one will be closer than you think, but I believe Seattle's magic runs out at Soldier Field, setting up the oldest rivarly in the NFL for the NFC title game.

New England 31, NY Jets 18. (NE -8 1/2)
Let Rex Ryan do all the smack talking he wants. His Jets are still not any better than the team he brought to Foxboro a few Monday nights ago, only to promptly get embarrassed 45-3. That won't happen again this time, but the Jets simply don't have the firepower to compete with a Tom Brady-led offense. Effectively, the Jets will have to play a game similar to what Seattle played against New Orleans last weekend. If that happens, the Jets can pull off their greatest upset since Super Bowl III. But come on, it's almost impossible to bet against Brady and Belichick in January.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

NFL Regular Season Awards Plus First Round Predictions

Hmmm, let's see. Who remembers Week 1 of the 2010 NFL Season as if it were yesterday! Not just me, that's for sure. What exactly do we remember? Kevin Kolb was the Eagles' starting quarterback. Chad Henne was projected to be the next breakout star. The Raiders and Chiefs were expected to finish in the basement of the AFC West. The Cowboys and Vikings were projected to play in the NFC title game. Donovan McNabb was supposed to lead the Redskins back to the playoffs. Peyton Hillis and Arian Foster were probably not selected in any fantasy draft. The Bucs were expected to have the worst record in the NFL. The Jets did not have any scandals involving DUIs, Harrassment suits, and especially feet.

So much changes in this damn league. And that's why we all adore it. Here are the Rant's 2010 NFL Regular Season awards:

MVP: Tom Brady, QB, New England.

Sorry, Michael Vick supporters. Brady has been consistent all year long and has not thrown an interception since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. This even after the trade of his biggest target. Brady is the heart and soul of the Pats, and he arguably had his best season in 2010.

(Honorable mention: Vick, Troy Polamalu)

Offensive Player of the Year: Brady

(Honorable mention: Vick, Foster)

Defensive Player of the Year: Clay Matthews, LB, Packers.

In a season in which Green Bay was ravaged by injuries on both sides of the ball, Matthews remained the most consistent on a very good defense. He has been the backbone of the Pack's D and has developed into one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL.

(Honorable mention: Polamalu)

Coach of the Year: Todd Haley, Chiefs.

Kansas City is far, far ahead of schedule in its rebuilding process. Haley led the Chiefs to their first division title since 2003.

(Honorable mention: Raheem Morris, Bucs and Mike McCarthy, Packers)

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Sam Bradford, QB, Rams

The next Peyton Manning? He put up numbers comparable to Manning's in his rookie season, and his Rams came one win away from their first playoff apperance since 2004. Not bad for a team that went 1-15 last year.

(Honorable mention: Maurkice Pouncey, C, Steelers)

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Ndomakong Suh, DE, Lions

Detroit finally has a true franchise cornerstone to build around the way Barry Sanders was in the 90s. And he's just getting started.

(Honorable mention: Devin McCourty, S, Patriots)

Biggest Surprise, player: Arian Foster, RB, Texans.

The first undrafted player in NFL history to win the rushing title. 'Nuff said.

(Honorable mention: Vick, Darren McFadden, RB, Raiders)

Biggest Surprise, team: Kansas City Chiefs.

Best running game in the NFL, a maturing quarterback, and an outstanding defense. They will be a force for the next few years.

(Honorable mention: Raiders, Bucs)

Biggest Disappointment, player: Carson Palmer, QB, Bengals.

If you need any more proof that Palmer has fallen from elite status to bum in a little over a year, just look at the last offensive play vs. Baltimore last Sunday. TWO, yes, TWO recievers were wide open in the end zone and he didn't see either.

(Dishonorable mention: McNabb, Chad Henne, QB, Dolphins)

Biggest Disappointment, team: Dallas Cowboys.

It was destiny. They were supposed to play in a Super Bowl in their own stadium built for billions by their megalomanical owner. Everything fell apart. The QB got hurt, and the coach was fired mid-season. At least they made strides under Jason Garrett.

(Dishonorable mention: Minnesota Vikings, Houston Texans)

Biggest Surprise, coach: Raheem Morris, Bucs.

One year ago, he was on the hot seat after an awful first season. This year, he led the youngest team in the NFL to 1o wins. Can it be duplicated next year?

(Honorable mention: Tom Cable, Raiders and Lovie Smith, Bears)

Biggest Disappointment, coach: Mike Singletary, 49ers.

He loudly declared he wanted winners two years ago. Too bad his players did not take on the same attitude. Not to mention the Niners were heavily favored to win the awful NFC West. And when the champion of that division is 7-9, you really screwed up.

(Dishonorable mention: Wade Phillips, Cowboys and Josh McDaniels, Broncos)

Breakout star of 2011 (assuming, of course, there is no lockout): Josh Freeman, QB, Bucs.

He grew up as an NFL quarterback almost overnight this season. As long as he doesn't go down the Chad Henne route, the Bucs are in good hands for the next decade.

(Honorable mention: Tim Tebow, QB, Broncos and Andrew Luck, QB, Panthers?)

Sleeper team of 2011: Detroit Lions.

If Matt Stafford can stay healthy, and the defense adds enough complimentary parts around Ndomakong Suh, this team just may make the playoffs in 2011.

(Honorable mention: Carolina Panthers, Houston Texans)

Team that will fall the farthest in 2011: Miami Dolphins.

Chad Henne may not be the real deal. The players have revolted against Tony Sparano. Brandon Marshall's talents are being wasted. Unless there is a complete attitude adjustment, I don't see any improvements by this unit.

(Dishonorable mention: Tampa Bay Bucs, Chicago Bears)

Player that will fall the farthest in 2011: Chad Ochocinco, WR, Bengals?

Maybe the player formerly known as Chad Johnson should stick to his TV work, because I don't see him being an elite reciever anymore.

(Henne, Vince Young, QB, Titans)

Picks for the first round (2-2 last week, 21-23 overall)

New Orleans 35, Seattle 14. (NO -10).

The defending champs are hitting their stride at the right time, and as long as Drew Brees doesn't turn the ball over, New Orleans should have an easy time against the first 7-9 division winner in NFL history.

N.Y. Jets 20, Indianapolis 17. (OT)(NYJ +3).

I honestly think the Jets will get their revenge on Peyton and Co. Saturday night. The Colts are simply not the same team as last year. Two of Peyton's favorite targets, Austin Collie and Dallas Clark, are out for the season. Reggie Wayne is simply good now, not great. The Colts can't run the ball to save themselves. If Rex Ryan's brash talk is backed up by his faithful players, they should be able to squeak by Indy.

Baltimore 24, Kansas City 20. (BAL -2 1/2).

Where have we seen this Baltimore team before? They went into Foxboro last January and embarrased Brady, Belichick, and co. This year, they face an inexperienced, overachieving Chiefs team that contains many players with no postseason experience. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Ray Rice and co. know how to win road playoff games. This will be no exception.

Philadelphia 23, Green Bay, 20. (PHI -2 1/2).

Honestly, this game is a toss-up. I won't be surpised if either team wins this one. The big difference between both teams since their Week 1 matchup is that Michael Vick will play the entire game, and the Packers will be without Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley. For that, I give the Eagles a slight edge.